The Obstacle is the Way

In Print Issues, Resilience by Summer Kassmel, DDS

In 2014, I was a practicing dentist with two small kiddos in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. I owned one office, with 6 dental operatories, and I was EXHAUSTED from remembering: payroll nuances, did I.T. comply with the latest HIPAA regulations..? And oh yah, do I finally confront the dental assistant that always shows up just a little late, everyday? The year was 2013 and I had been practicing for 11 years. I prayed God would help me figure out something different, because I was burnt out and felt as if I failed in every area of my life. I was constantly tired, frustrated, and this so-called “work life balance” seemed like a fairy tale. 

As a very strange answer to prayer, I started having horrible, relentless pain in my lower back. After ignoring it for several months, my back went out and I was unable to stand up for several days. I went to the doctor in 2014 and after many tests, I found out I have severe hip dysplasia. As the ligaments tore that held my hip together, my back tried to compensate. I was told I would have at least 18 months of surgeries, PT, wheelchair, and crutches. As only God can provide, my classmate had reached out to see if there were any opportunities to practice in my area. Dr. Melanie Albers joined me in July 2014, and I went in for my first surgery in August of that same year.

I had very little business acumen and before the surgeries, very little time, with a busy practice and two small children. With the uniquely wrapped “gift” of multiple surgeries, came the opportunity for a metamorphosis. For the first time in my career, I was given time to decide if I wanted to quit dentistry or start learning how to run a profitable practice, without the use of my own hands. For some people, being backed into a corner is scary, but I now find I actually enjoy what I can become precisely because of these moments. Don’t hear me wrong, it was scary, and I had to trust myself that I could learn how to be a smart businesswoman. This trust formed slowly as doubts of my own limited abilities had to constantly be squashed. I started consuming every book and podcast I could, and I made lunch dates with successful business people. As a result, I began understanding PnLs and what the numbers meant. Little by little, I would learn, implement, monitor, and systematize. I started spotting trends in the business and began making better projections. I began to deeply enjoy the satisfaction of watching the numbers change based on the “behind-the-scenes” deep work I was doing. 

The other area I focused heavily on was my own self development and improving both my leadership and communication. Once again, I found incredible podcasts and books that I devoured (and still do to this day!) to begin changing my own thoughts. My favorites are: Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday and Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Many of my perceived worries, frustrations, and concerns were all fear based and, in all honesty, the result of not fully owning my choices. I wanted to often blame the circumstances or the team (or insert every other excuse possible here). I then realized much of what I saw around me was the result of a choice I had made previously or a choice I keep making. Sometimes, this could be allowing poor results, enabling poor behavior or the choice to not do anything at all. I was at the Dental Success Summit in 2016 and heard a speaker say, “look around at your office, your life, your relationships… Everything you see reflects your own choices. If you aren’t happy with what you see, it’s time to have the tough conversations with yourself and other people”. 

I was a woman on a mission and a woman on fire. As I focused on becoming a true CEO of my one location, I also started a dental assisting school from my office in 2015, which is still running and supplying my own offices and those around me with quality dental assistants. This endeavor was arduous and long, as it takes 4-12 months of paperwork and diligence to have my state finally grant me a Private Occupational School certificate. Despite the initial uphill climb and cost, it has proven to be a fantastic service to my offices and the entire community. Many young men and women leave high school and want more education, but a traditional 4-year college is not the path for them. The dental assisting school has afforded hundreds of bright women and men the opportunity to build a bigger future while still working their day jobs. I now sell this program to offices around the country so doctors can start a dental assisting program in their own office. A dental assisting school offers a nice secondary income and is mostly driven by auxiliary team members that enjoy teaching aspiring dental assistants. 

Since that moment in 2016, I have acquired 4 offices, merged them into two locations, expanded hours and have 6 fantastic doctors giving patients in our mountain valley the most comprehensive treatment possible. One of my favorite parts is empowering a leadership team of women that hire, train, lead, and grow other team members. I am extremely honored to work with a team of women leaders that have grown to coach other offices and run our companies with a deep mission to serve others. I also enjoy watching young doctors learn that numbers aren’t scary, rather, they are just indicators to where they are “wowing” patients or potentially missing an opportunity to provide impact in someone’s life. The light bulb moments where doctors help themselves improve by understanding their own level of control on situations is magical, and I find it helps them be more transparent with their teams. I have been granted the gift of not having to practice clinical dentistry, but I choose to practice 2 days per week doing only Invisalign in the offices. The other 2 days are used solely for deep focused CEO time working on the offices and other entities I own. 

I now coach with Dr. Mark Costes and Dental Success Institute (DSI) and have the opportunity to speak with doctors across the country and help them use numbers and systems to create a level of accountability in their practices they didn’t know could exist. DSI is very proliferated with an “ownership” mindset, ensuring that doctors are ready to take FULL responsibility for the results they are seeing around them. This then empowers doctors to change things and create healthier environments, even when that means letting go of a toxic, long time team member. 

Besides coaching, I also am faculty for Dental Success Network and run the Lady Leaders room. I have found that I deeply enjoy helping other women doctors define success on their own terms, whether that is running one highly profitable boutique office, multiple offices with several other doctors, being a super GP associate in a high-end practice, and anything you can imagine in between these options. I am saddened when I hear women doctors feel “let down” by the career path they chose and worked so hard to attain. I often listen to stories of burnout and exhaustion and feelings of just trying to “hold it all together” rather than ever feeling a level of thriving in life. The amount of guilt, shame, and perfectionism abound in women doctors. 

I sometimes wish I could tell myself 20 years ago, “learn something from everyone and every situation. Try it all and find what lights you up. And then, realize that what lights you up now, may morph into something else and that’s fantastic! Meet new people and figure out how to help them, as you never know when the connections you made in the past will come back to prove valuable later. Stop reaching for goals if you have no intention of enjoying the journey. It’s that journey, that struggle, that discomfort that is where all the good stuff comes from for you and your relationships. Be kind to yourself while still holding your standard and personal integrity high. Truly, don’t sweat problems that can be fixed by money or a hard conversation. And finally, Summer, two things will change the world around you, despite your circumstances…ownership and gratitude. Use both daily.”

I wish every DEW reader a joyful journey and companions around you that make it beautiful. Life is too short to settle for less.